Hirvonen, Ford strike back with Australia 1-2
11 September 2011
Ford Abu Dhabi's Mikko Hirvonen won Rally Australia today, although only after team-mate, Jari-Matti Latvala slowed in the penultimate test to allow his fellow countryman through to take the maximum 25 points.
Ford dominated the event 'down under', the tenth round in the 2011 World Rally Championship, and with Citroen's Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier both going out during the opening leg - Loeb rolling in SS4, while Ogier hit a tree in SS6, just two of a number of runners to be caught out in the treacherous conditions on Friday - the 'Blue Oval' had a relatively easy run to its first double success since May 2009 in Italy.
Hirvonen ended the opening leg 7 seconds up on Latvala, but running first on the road on day two he immediately slipped back. Indeed Latvala pulled out a good cushion and went into Sunday with a 22.7 second lead. Latvala then more or less maintained that gap up until the final loop, and in SS25, he eased off to allow Mikko back in front, as the 31-year-old is still in with an outside chance of beating Loeb in the 2011 WRC drivers' championship.
Hirvonen, who has now taken a hat-trick of wins in Australia following his previous successes in 2006 and 2009, now moves back up to second in the standings and cuts the gap to Loeb from 36 points pre-event to 15 ahead of the three final rounds in France, Spain and Wales.
“At the start of the season Jari-Matti and I agreed to help each other, and Jari-Matti showed today what a team player he is,” Hirvonen said. “He had a great opportunity to win this rally but he gave it up to help me in my fight for the championship and I appreciate that. Two years ago I lost the world title by a single point, so every point counts.
“My thanks go to the whole team. We've waited for this for a long time and I know we can continue to fight for wins and titles together. It's been a hard season and we've been under great pressure. We controlled the weekend well as a team and I'm delighted for Ford that we're returning home with a one-two.”
“I know I had the speed to win here and that's good for my confidence, but I wanted to support Mikko,” Latvala added. “It's about attitude and how we handle it. Our challenge for the manufacturers' title suffered from my mistakes and this was my opportunity to pay something back. We have a good spirit inside Ford and you can't win without that.
“I want to be in this team, and we all work well together. I had a passion to win here, but I had to look at the bigger picture and this was the time to support Mikko. Yesterday morning was the key time in the rally. We punched in a series of fastest times, and I knew then that we could both control the result.”
Ford's 1-2 is well timed, as not only does it end Citroen's run of eight successive wins and give the M-Sport-run outfit a timely boost, but it also helps them close the gap somewhat in the manufacturers' – reducing the deficit from 91 points to 62.
Loeb meanwhile fought back to finish tenth under the SupeRally, moving up into the final points paying position in SS25, when Citroen ordered the sister car of Sebastien Ogier to drop back.
Loeb also further minimised the damage by winning the Power Stage and taking all three bonus points. Latvala was second in the Power stage and Petter Solberg third.
“I cannot be happy with the rally we have done,” Loeb said. “We [Ogier and I] crashed both cars and while we could re-start we lost a lot of time. Finally we did the only thing we could do since we crashed, which was to score four points – one in the rally and three in the Power stage. I am not really happy but it is better than nothing.”
Petter Solberg took the final place on the rostrum in his privately entered Citroen DS3 WRC car, finishing 30.1 seconds off P2 and 44.8 seconds off P1. It was his first podium since Sardinia back in May.
“I'm so happy with the weekend and to have a podium again,” Petter said. “Everything has worked perfectly over the weekend and to be able to be up there, doing the same pace as the others is so great. I have really enjoyed driving this weekend, and am happy with both the car and my own performance.
“For sure, I want to be even faster, but this is as good as it gets at this moment. It's been good fun this weekend and to manage to get that extra point for the power stage is just an extra bonus today!”
Behind, Matthew Wilson was fourth for the M-Sport Stobart Ford team, albeit eight minutes adrift of Petter. The result equalled his career best finish: “It's been a really difficult weekend but I'm really happy with our result, especially with Scott [Martin] beside me as this is our best finish with him as my co-driver,” Wilson reflected. “Today I haven't been trying to push - we needed to do the sensible thing and find a comfortable pace to ensure we didn't make any mistakes.
“Friday was incredibly difficult – the roads were so slippery and it was one of the hardest days rallying I've had. You know it's a difficult day when a seven-time World Champion retires! We enjoyed yesterday's stages and the conditions but I was disappointed when [team-mate] Henning [Solberg] stopped with his problem as it wasn't the way we wanted to move up the leaderboard.
“The car has been working well today and we were just driving at our own speed as the gap to Petter was too much to risk making any silly mistakes. I'm now hoping that this result will help to get us something sorted for next year.”
Khalid Al-Qassimi completed the top-five in his Team Abu Dhabi-Fiesta RS WRC, taking advantage of all the causalities on day one, like Wilson, to score good points. Indeed P5 is actually his best-ever WRC result.
“This is a historic day for motorsport in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “My plan was to be as close to the top five as possible and I more than met my expectations. I enjoyed a clear run in difficult conditions and mixed terrain. I was extremely nervous through the final few stages because I didn't want to push and risk losing my position, but it was a sensible and mature performance.”
Of the other WRC drivers, in addition to Loeb and Ogier, who went out on day one, Peter van Merksteijn Jr, Henning Solberg and Ken Block also got to the end and were classified thanks to the SupeRally, finishing 13th, 14th and 19th respectively.
Block went out in the first stage on Friday, while van Merksteijn Jr also had retire on day one after SS6 when he picked up two punctures and only had one replacement.
Henning had his problems on Saturday, with electrical issues stopping him in SS15. He had been running fourth. The Norwegian had a dramatic final day too, rolling in SS23 and suffering two punctures in the Power Stage. He lipped to the end however.
Evgeny Novikov and Brazil WRT MINI John Cooper Works man Daniel Oliviera were the two retirees today, both going off the road in SS22. Novikov and Oliviera had also had to retire on day 1, the latter with radiator issues in SS6, while the former hit a rock in SS7.
In the Production WRC, Haydon Paddon took his fourth win in succession and secured the 2011 PWRC title – despite a blown turbo charger on day two, which cost him significant time. Paddon also finished sixth overall.
Fellow PWRC runners Michal Kosciuszko, Oleksandr Saliuk and Benito Guerra took 'senior' WRC points too, and held positions 7 through to 9 on the overall leaderboard – and 2 through to 4 in the PWRC. Kosciuszko finished the event 1 minute 32 seconds off Paddon.
The 2011 WRC now continues at the end of the month, with Rallye de France running from September 29-October 2.